Lazienki Park: A monument to kings of past

New York-based writer Terese Loeb Kreuzer recently explored Warsaw's most famous park.

WARSAW -- Just south of Warsaw's commercial district is exquisite Lazienki Park.

Its wooded paths lead to romantic pools and graceful palaces and its gardens are filled with statues of nymphs and satyrs, ancient gods, goddesses, heroes and emperors.

Although the history of this estate dates to the Middle Ages, much of what survives in Lazienki reflects the personality and interests of Poland's last king, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1732-1798).

He seems to have been a good man who lived in intensely troubled times. During his lifetime, Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, ceasing to exist as a nation for 150 years.

He might not have been successful altogether on the world stage, but Stanislaus Augustus was wordly. His private library of 16,000 volumes was housed in Warsaw's Royal Castle. He was also a knowledgeable and passionate patron of the arts.

A portrait of him in the Lazienki Palace shows a man with a delicate and sensitive face, his right hand gently resting on an hour glass, with paper, pen and a globe nearby.

Any visit to Warsaw would be incomplete without spending a few hours in his company. In 1764, shortly before he was elected king of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus bought the Ujazdowski Castle, which dated from the early 17th century.

It was situated in what is now Lazienki Park. The future king wanted to build a private summer residence on the property, which had once been used as a royal hunting ground. Using a pre-existing building called the Bath as its base, he erected the charming Palace on the Water, so-called because it overlooks a small, man-made lake fed by a stream that ran through the property.

Work began in 1772 and continued until the end of his reign in 1795. In this charming palace, the king entertained artists, authors, reformers and his paramour-turned-morganatic wife, Elzbieta Grabowska.

A portrait of Russia's Catherine the Great hangs in the first-floor antechamber of the palace. She is depicted as a stout woman, decked in ermine, with gray eyes that conceal more than they reveal, and a resolute set to her mouth. Catherine played a pivotal role in the king's life.

The future king and the empress had been lovers when he was the Polish ambassador to St. Petersburg between 1756 and 1758. She was instrumental in getting him elected to the Polish throne, but in 1795, she forced him to abdicate and carted him off to Russia. He died there almost four years later, her prisoner.

Although the Palace on the Lake is the architectural centerpiece of Lazienki Park, there are many other buildings of interest. The White Cottage, constructed between 1774 and 1778 as a temporary summer residence, was later occupied by Grabowska.

It is an airy building with large, ground-floor windows that double as doors. This cottage survived World War II almost intact. The Myslewicki Palace, also in the park, was built between 1775 and 1784. Peacocks patrol the front of this palace, foraging in a garden of fiery red flowers.

One of the main attractions in the Lazienki Park is a statue of Frederic Chopin that has particular significance for the Poles. Chopin's music sustained them through years of war and occupation. So it is not surprising that during World War II, when Germany conquered Poland, the composer's music was outlawed.

A statue of Chopin brooding under a willow tree, a much-photographed Warsaw landmark, was finished in 1926. In 1944, during the German occupation of Warsaw, it was the first monument in the city to be torn down.

After the war, it was carefully reconstructed. Reflected in a pond bordered with brilliant red roses, the statue is the site of Chopin concerts on Sundays from late spring through early fall.

The Lazienki Palace is open from Tuesdays through Sundays. There is a small admission fee, and it is necessary to tour as a group. Admission to the park itself is free, and it is open daily until sunset.

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